One of the most impactful factors in the success of the New York Jets over the last few seasons has been the level of play of their offensive line.
In 2009 and 2010, the Jets’ line was superb, opening up holes in the running game and giving Mark Sanchez time to make plays in the passing game. The Jets won 24 total games, including playoffs, those two years.
However, in 2011, the offensive line was not up their usual standard. All three interior linemen battled through a variety of injuries, and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson had his worst season in recent memory.
Then, there was Wayne Hunter.
Hunter, a journeyman backup who played excellent down the stretch in 2010 after being pressed into duty at right tackle, was given the reigns to the starting right tackle job, and he struggled.
While it wasn’t all his fault, as the offensive coaching staff repeatedly failed to put him in positions to succeed after obvious adjustments were needed, Wayne Hunter became a lighting rod of discontent among Jets fans.
Many fans were dismayed that Hunter entered camp here in 2012 as the starting right tackle again, with seemingly no competition behind him should he falter again under the Jets’ new offensive coaching staff.
However, a challenger has entered in the fray of 25-year-old Austin Howard, a massive 6’7, 330 lb offensive tackle who’s been turning heads with his play.
Howard, who’s seen brief NFL time with the Philadelphia Eagles, and spent most of the 2011 season on the Baltimore Ravens practice squad, has gotten increased reps with the first-team and impressed his coaches.
With Wayne Hunter sitting out the Jets’ preseason opener with a back injury, Austin Howard got the start at right tackle and then moved to left tackle on the second-unit, holding his own the entire way.
Head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano both singled out Howard for praise after his performance, and it’s probably a lock at this point that Howard will break camp with the team.
“You look at a guy like this, anybody that can play the way he plays is trying to tell you something,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to find a way to get him out there.”
Ryan said that Howard “played like a Jet,” and although Hunter had been playing well and is still the favorite for the starting right tackle job, it’s certainly a good problem to have when a young player like Howard steps up.
“We’re anxious to get Wayne back and see the competition go at that point,” said Sparano. “But Austin doing what he’s done right now, quite honestly, it’s becoming a little bit of a habit.”
An undrafted free agent in 2010 out of Northern Iowa, Austin Howard is taking all of the praise in stride. He’s staying humble and just trying to do his job, hoping that everything will work out for him if he keeps it up.
“Nothing’s set in stone,” Howard said. “As far as the season goes, right now … I’m just focusing on this preseason, getting better every game and … making sure that I can do whatever the coaches ask me to do.”